In the United States, debate is raging over how the Internet should be classified and regulated. The argument centers around net neutrality—whether or not all the data passing through a network should be considered equal. But net neutrality is only a part of how the Internet is regulated. Different countries have all tackled regulation in their own way, developing some vastly different systems than the one that will potentially be repealed in the United States.
Portugal, as part of the European Union, has net neutrality, prohibiting throttling or blocking of data. What is not prohibited is “zero-rating,” where data from specific apps or websites aren’t counted toward a user’s monthly data limit, allowing providers to forge partnerships with particular apps and websites. This has been incorrectly interpreted as a lack of net neutrality, but it’s allowable as long as the provider doesn’t throttle data from other sources. Even the current net neutrality regulations in the United States don’t prohibit outright zero-rating either—it’s currently treated on a case-by-case basis and is allowable so long as providers don’t discriminate when offering the service, which is exactly how Verizon and AT&T ended up in hot water earlier this year while T-Mobile got a pass.
The government agency in Japan that oversees telecommunications—the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications—takes a largely hands-off approach to regulating internet service. Much of the regulation in the country is voluntary self-regulation by the industry itself, which grew out of the privatization and breakup of the state-owned Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation in the late 1990s. Today, the Japanese government considers broadband Internet service to be a portion of a “universal telecommunications service” that is to be provided fairly and stably.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is supporting a plan for a more open Internet. This is partly based on the National Telecom Policy from 2012 that recognizes a mobile phone as an “instrument of empowerment,” and that because of that it should function in a neutral environment. The regulations the government agency is backing would prohibit blocking and throttling of data in the vast majority of cases, and in remaining cases—such as an emergency government request for priority transmission—the prioritization would be permissible only if it was accompanied by a transparent explanation of the reasons behind it.
Australia has no net neutrality laws, and it’s unlikely to change any time soon. Internet service in the country is regulated by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Across the country, ISPs regularly offer zero-rated content through partnerships with content providers. The system works because of the large number of ISPs (63 according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics), strong consumer protection laws to prevent ISPs from throttling or blocking competitors’ content, and rules mandating that ISPs have to be transparent in their policies.
Russia, despite a tightening of its already heavy online censorship, passed net neutrality laws in 2016. The recent legislation focuses on nondiscriminatory access to content—that is, the content not censored by the government, which is itself a sizable list. Russia’s regulation demonstrates more than most situations that net neutrality isn’t the whole issue. A neutral approach to data doesn’t mean any data is permissible, and a government can still choose to block access to large swaths of Internet sites if it has the ability to do so.